[The Update is at the foot of the original post.]
Recently Francis Spufford, novelist and CofE General Synod member, wrote an article making some waves. It is entitled "How I changed my mind about same-sex marriage" and can be read here.
Ian Paul, blogger and CofE General Synod member, has written a response entitled "Is change in the Church's teaching on sexuality inevitable?" and can be read here.
(Aside: there are illuminating comments, or, at least, fascinating comments, including this one:
"Paul was doing to the equivalent of a bishops letter to the diocese. Bishops change their minds. So with Paul." LOL. The only non-controversial claim here is that bishops change their minds!)
Both Francis and Ian (first names here will save confusion about "Paul"/"[Saint] Paul") offer extensive arguments in support of their respective theses, and - frankly - I don't have time to engage with the details and subtleties and offer my own "Francis/Ian is right and here is why."
In my estimation a singular question Francis raises is whether the church through history has indeed worked through tensions between "principle" and "rule" in favour of principle over rule. In part Ian's counter is that the principle of marriage is that male and female come together in union so the principle here always supports the rule (no same-sex sex).
I also wonder whether what Francis writes is more of a forecast than a thesis. That is, even if Ian is right in what he says is wrong with Francis' thesis, Francis (perhaps with the insight of a novelist?) is putting his finger on where the winds of collective change are heading, even if we will not know that till later this century. Nevertheless, the tradition of marriage, the embedded narrative and theology of marriage in Scripture, that a man and a woman become a couple, both formally (in the eyes of their community and their families) and biologically, imaging aspects of the divine life (diversity in unity; the union between Christ and the church) would have to make a significant, if not dramatic change to become a theology of any two persons marrying.
The church has changed its mind on many things but often it has taken a long time for the change of mind to involve a strong majority if not a unanimity of church members. And through that time there have been arguments and counter-arguments concerning the change, even as sociologically the change has continued to role along - I am thinking particularly of decision-making in favour of the ordination of women.
But, with a few moments of spare time, I want to have a stab at offering a few thoughts, by picking on one thing Ian says as a specific cue to my thoughts:
"In other words, the implicit but clear case Paul is making is not about the context of such activity, but the creation principle behind it which is the form of humanity as male and female."
I suggest this emphasis on "context" and "creation principle" in relation to matters of human relationships raise more than a few questions as we engage with Scripture and in particular with Paul's writings.
For instance, does "context" play a role in what Paul says? I suggest it does, notably in 1 Corinthians 7 where the so-called Pauline Exception (re divorce and remarriage) introduces a new and different exception to the so-called Matthean Exception, because Paul in the Graeco-Roman context finds a new issue to give a ruling on, and does so, but not one he has a direct ruling from Jesus to draw on.
Conversely, how well does "creation principle" play out in the notable and controversial passage 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where Paul appeals to Adam being created first, ahead of Eve, and to Eve's role in "the fall" of creation, to justify women's silence in church and submission to male leadership? Does Paul, for example, appeal to one aspect of the creation story (Eve being created from Adam, according to Genesis 2) and not to another, namely, humanity, male and female being created in the image of God (Genesis 1)?
With respect to same-sex civil marriages, even if they fail a "creation principle" in which the emphasis falls on marriage as a creation institution for male and female, do they not fit with another "creation principle" in which (also according to Genesis 2), it is not good for a man to be alone? To what extent, in other words, might companionship be a "creation principle" which undergirds affirmation in the church of two men or two women covenanting together to be partners in life for life? Especially if those men or women are not capable of otherwise conforming to the requirement for marriage to be between a man and a woman?
Paul, incidentally, in respect of the two articles which touch on the question of whether Paul was wrong on homosexuality, was an intriguing theologian of sex. For instance, overwhelmed by the conviction that the return of Christ was imminent, he offers nothing by way of support for the notion that sex is primarily for the purpose of procreation, pace our 20th and 21st century debates re contraception. (He's not against the possibility of procreation being primary; likely, as a well trained Jewish scholar and teacher, he would answer that question affirmatively; but he just doesn't give the matter consideration.) Conversely, in 1 Corinthians 7, he is realistic about the power of sexual desire: better to marry than burn; better to refrain from sex in order to pray for a limited time only and only by mutual agreement. Yet these considerations have nothing to do with a classic modern posed dilemma, is sex for procreation or for pleasure.)
In other words, even though there is considerable weight in tradition and Scripture re Christian marriage involving a man and a woman, there is also possibility within even the Pauline writings for some fresh thinking about how the church might respond to same sex couples who covenant life together, including contracting together a civil marriage according to changed civil laws.
There is lots more to say here - more questions and observations - and I don't have time to write them. Francis and Ian both make excellent arguments along the way of their respective articles, and each article deserves careful consideration by all Anglicans interested in this particular conversation.
UPDATE [15 August 2021]
In the comments below a point is made that any changes to our understanding of and application of Scripture should not involve strain on a "plain reading" of Scripture. The specific comment by Bowman Walton sparking this update is this:
"In an interview, J I Packer once replied to some of the usual arguments for SSM by saying that such sophisticated readings of scripture dissolved the ordinary believer's confidence in the plain meaning of the text, and that was far too high a price to pay for a trendy ritual innovation. Kindly note that even if one favors the innovation, some authority problems remain to be solved."
Of course (as a comment in reply by Jonathan notes), there is not always a "plain" understanding of the "plain meaning" of Scripture and so forth re complex discussion on hermeneutics.
We could also note that some readers of Scripture are quite comfortable with "sophisticated readings of scripture" - I am thinking, for instance, of interpretations of Revelation in respect of different understandings of "end times".
Nevertheless I think JI Packer via Bowman makes an excellent observation. For instance, if we wish to persuade the whole church of change X then we are more likely to be persuasive if we can offer an interpretation of Scripture which can be easily recalled and recounted to another Christian than if the explanation is sophisticated to the point where few can readily pass it on to others.
With respect to what Ian and Francis are arguing over I make the following observations:
1. The plain understanding of marriage in Scripture (whether in its narratives or in its ethics or in its imagery (e.g. re Christ and the church) is that marriage is between a man and a woman. To argue that marriage can be between any two persons, without reference to gender, is intrinsically to bring forth a sophisticated argument.
2. On what I see as a "related" matter, marriage and divorce and remarriage after divorce, it is interesting that getting around what Jesus and Paul say involves a not entirely persuasive sophistication. For instance, the Roman approach via "annulment" both reads Jesus and Paul in a "plain" manner (there can be no marriage after divorce) and in a "sophisticated" manner (because Jesus and Paul say absolutely nothing about "annulment" of marriages, nor about difference between "civil marriages"/"church marriages which are not sacramental" and "sacramental marriages." Where Protestants seek to offer Scriptural support why A and B can remarry after divorce but not C and D, because the background circumstances are different; or because A and B have repented of mistakes made in their previous marriages whereas C and D have not, there is a different kind of sophistication going on. Neither Jesus nor Paul offer other exceptions than the Matthean and Pauline Exceptions; and neither talk about "repentance" as overcoming Jesus' fundamental point that marriage is for life.
3. In my view, a simpler and plainer reading of Scripture re marriage, divorce and remarriage, is to work pastorally with a couple seeking marriage after divorce under the mandate "be merciful."
4. Back to same sex lifelong partnerships, especially those lawfully constituted as marriages in an increasing number of countries around the world: what is a plain reading of Scripture which supports the church pastorally supporting rather than condemning same sex couples in our parishes?
5. Noting some approaches I have read to the "Six Texts" over the years, and fascinating as certain word studies are re words used in - notably - Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, sophisticated arguments which attempt to effect a neutralising of the plain meaning of these texts are likely to be unpersuasive. Better (as some writers I have read do) to admit these texts are condemnatory and then ask whether they address our modern situation as governments by divine appointments change laws.
6. A straightforward possibility is that the church then invokes "be merciful" (per 3 above, per precedent regarding response to remarriage after divorce) and re-examines what "companionship" (Genesis 2) might mean in 21st century society.
7. In making an examination of what "companionship" in 21st century society might mean in relationship to sexual relationships, the church might remember that in some ancient times, in Hebrew/Israelite society, there was divine tolerance of polygamy, even though polygamy cannot be squared off with Genesis 2 or Jesus'/Paul's reading of Genesis 2.